Tag Archives: community

PorchFest: Keeping good vibrations going through a community

The New Snip City bluegrass band plays in a yard surrounded by music fansWhile the concept of PorchFests is fairly new up here on Lake Ontario — Fair Haven just had its third annual, Oswego will have its fifth in September — it’s a really wonderful addition to local calendars. It’s one of the more equitable music festivals imaginable; you not only get to hang out with your friends and neighbors, but you get to see your friends and neighbors perform. Or if you’re really lucky, you even get to perform with new friends and neighbors.

These festivals feel like an antidote to the ills of the modern world. People physically talk to and interact with each other in real life! Music plays, but not from an electronic device. What a concept. Generally if I saw a cellphone out, it was because somebody was taking pictures or a video of a performer, and the person taking it would have a large smile on their face. This wasn’t the social media “I have to get this to show how awesome I am” game; it was the “I have to get this to show how awesome these people are” game.

At Fair Haven’s PorchFest, you had everything from solo singer-songwriters to bluegrass bands to country tunesmiths to theatrical collectives to a ukulele orchestra to horns from the Alps. If you wanted just about any type of music, you could find it, or let it find you as you strolled the village’s streets. Most of the performers were from Central New York or had family in the area, with a few folks from further afield just adding to the menu.

About the only challenge is that there’s no way you can see everybody you want. Or you can see many acts by not staying for a whole set. Achieving a balance can manifest in other ways; if you were enjoying the excellent bluegrass of New Snip City on Richmond Avenue, between songs you could hear the lush high lonesome sounds of Emalee Herrington from down the road, and vice versa. But that’s unavoidable given the event’s geographic and temporal boundaries.

The band Be Kind, Rewind performs '90s rock on a front lawnIn terms of everything else, especially the vibe and interaction, an A+ to the organizers and players on what turned out to be a beautiful day in Fair Haven. At the south end of Platt Street, a band called Be Kind Rewind playing ‘90s rock got a pair of unexpected encores. They had to dig back to songs they hadn’t played in a while, and if their performance wasn’t perfect because of any rustiness, the crowd didn’t mind and just sang, clapped and danced along. That’s how music should be.

And nothing symbolizes this day of equitable treatment of all things musical like the closing jam. To play in it, all you do is show up with an instrument and take a chair around a circle. I brought my acoustic bass and happily joined a group of musicians that were all better than me, but I was welcomed as a friend. When one of the performers I’d seen on a porch earlier leaned over to ask me about chord progressions for an unfamiliar song, it made me feel like somebody. Like I was truly, in every way, a part of the festival.

***

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” a collection of epitaphs for a fictional town, “Fiddler Jones” is a rare happy poem. And why not, when it’s about playing music. It reminds me of the spirit of community, of barn dances brought out into the streets, this festival embodies. It begins:

“The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.”

One of the best descriptions of the musical itch I’ve ever read. In Fair Haven on Sunday, we all kept that vibration going, whether playing or clapping or singing along. The poem’s conclusion:

“I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.”

Listening to music, playing music and being in the moment — these are among the good things in life. If there’s a regret after going to a PorchFest, it’s that you couldn’t see all the bands you wanted to. But there’s always another PorchFest somewhere else or next year to keep the good vibrations going.

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Appreciating moments that are less than picture-perfect

Fireworks explode while partially obscured by trees

Not all plans to watch fireworks turn out, well, picture perfect.

After a late-evening early-birthday picnic for my mom at Sterling Nature Center, after we bid farewell to my mother and my brother and his adorable family, I asked Arius if he wanted to check out the Fair Haven fireworks. He said yes excitedly and, even though it was already about 9, with the Wall of Fire beginning at 9:30 and fireworks launching about 10, we headed west hoping for the best.

We found a parking spot over a giant puddle just off the main street and walked a few blocks to find a large gathering of families at the east side playground stretching north to Little Sodus Inn. On the whole I subscribe to the theory of the wisdom of crowds, especially for local knowledge, so I spread out the blanket and Arius even caught a snooze as amateur fireworks hour lapsed and we were ready for the professionals.

Then the first shot went up, and everybody in the park murmured about the same thing: The trees are in the way. Whether the launch spot moved because of flooding or for whatever reason, you now had a park full of people with an obstructed view.

The young woman one blanket over who seemed to be taking notes on every absurd utterance or happening to that point could have filled several pages of her notebook on what happened next. Spectators uprooted their blankets and bodies, and I suspect this is somewhat what the California gold rush looked like. A recently awakened Arius and I joined the nomadic party because why not?

But no good options presented themselves. Little Sodus Inn was crowded, no bare patches of land emerged and the herd was clamoring toward any desirable spots. I asked Arius if he wanted to go home, and was happy that he said yes.

We managed to catch a fire nice bursts from the sidewalks of Main Street, and watched for a few more moments from the car as I waited at an empty intersection before I pointed the Jeep east — meaning we also avoided a traffic jam.

I’m all about celebrating life’s imperfect moments, and this was another example. You can catch fireworks anywhere around Independence Day, and might not recall them later. This family adventure was one to remember.

Fireworks exploded, partially obscured by trees and buildings

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Thursday travelogue: Saranac Lake, the real/rustic Adirondacks

A view into a clear Saranac Lake from a parkside pier

If one just went by a drive-by appearance, one might think Saranac Lake is kind of the scrappy little sibling of shiny, tourist-laden Lake Placid. But spend some time there (as I have this week), and you might be impressed. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Saranac Lake is more the rustic, real Adirondacks to Lake Placid’s corporate version of the Adirondacks.

If I had to describe Saranac Lake in one word, it would be “community.” This is a community where people all seem to know each other, are nice to each other and genuinely seem to like each other. Even if you’re an outsider, they’ll treat you like one of their own. There’s also a very DIY vibe to it.

An Irish band plays in a park, as kids run around

Music on the Green was a hit for all ages

I saw a sign about a free concert on Wednesday, so I went not expecting too much. But for the Music on the Green series, a little park was packed and a really good band from Ireland, JigJam, played. It was truly an event for all ages, with kids dancing and running around in circles with each other. It felt very much like a snapshot of Americana.

A breakfast burrito with home fries

Breakfasts in the Adirondacks are big and tasty, such as this Origin Coffee breakfast burrito.

My base camp was a nice little inexpensive Air BnB just a few blocks from the center of the charming village. My host Rob said to try Origin Coffee Co., best coffee in town. He was right, but also the people were so genuinely nice. Wednesday was the last day of classes, so many teachers came in and many warm congratulations and general loveliness took place. The bar Bitters & Bones looks somewhat like a shack from the outside but, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is bigger and more awesome on the inside. I found myself in many great conversations and receiving excellent advice, including on hiking Cascade and Porter mountains.

Bitters and Bones pub hosts a variety of drinks and even has a live feed of bears on a big TV

At Bitters and Bones, you can find food and drink and conversation and if you’re lucky, live video of bears in Alaska on the big screen.

Don’t get me wrong: I still like Lake Placid and visited it yesterday as well. It’s a beautiful place with many good shops and eateries of its own. But my time there felt transactional — in stores and where I ate, I felt like a customer. In Saranac Lake, I often felt like a friend.

I enjoyed going home, but I’m genuinely missing the briefly established routine of getting a cup at Origin Coffee in the morning, or a drink and conversations at Bitters and Bones in the evening. But to find a place like that, a home away from home, only makes me look forward to visiting again.

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Days of past and future: Small-town dreaming for a happy 2019.

Meat sandwich of eggs, cheese and bacon

It’s the last day of 2018 and I’m sitting in the Hardware Cafe and General Store on the main street of Fair Haven for lunch. A surprisingly popular idea, it turns out, as the solo server has almost a full house to accommodate. But nobody seems to mind, as we all instead compliment her as she does her best. This was a year where so many of us found ourselves working hard and doing so many things that this seems like an appropriate metaphor … especially as the patrons generally leave satisfied.

I’m not the type to make any grand proclamations or recommendations or resolutions as we leave 2018 in the rearview as we head toward 2019. But I do like to take time at the end of the year to remember and, whenever possible, support things I enjoyed for the year. The village of Fair Haven, which has turned into a sort of adopted other hometown this year more than ever, is a great reason to be thankful.

A little free library in Fair HavenAs I enjoy a plainly titled yet delicious Meat Sandwich (eggs, cheese, bacon between two large slices of bread), I feel blessed that this diner/seller of curios is a place my son and I have enjoyed plenty. Arius is elsewhere today, so he’s not around to charm the population nor make me guess what foods he currently likes, but plenty of other warmth and community abounds. People come in and hug their neighbors or long-lost friends. A woman brought in cookies for the owners, wherever they may be. And nobody’s really in any hurry and never is heard a discouraging word.

After the meal, I will pop across the street to say a quick hello to my friend Bobby in the bank. He and his wife Amy, a teacher in the local school district, opened the Sterling Cidery, purveyor of delicious hard ciders and a convivial atmosphere — it and the cafe are my anchors in a year that saw me visit this village more and more.

Small-town sweetness

Arius looks at a snowman we builtThe latest census counts Fair Haven’s citizenry at 727 souls, although the lakeside community swells in the summer as snowbirds and people in other communities come back north to both modest cottages and homes resembling mansions along the West Bay. When we would spend summers at our camp a few miles down Lake Ontario or the Sterling Renaissance Festival, this is often where we’d come for groceries and modest entertainment. Back then the Fair Haven Register newspaper and my future employer the Oswego Palladium-Times would run stories about the small town’s aspirations to become a year-round tourist destination. Those dreams, like the Register itself, seem to be defunct, but nobody seems to mind that much. Fair Haven’s a gem they are not necessarily in a hurry to share.

While many families have been here for generations, Bobby and Amy are among the new blood. Bobby went to SUNY Oswego, and his history degree eventually found him on the other side of the country working in a museum where he met Amy. She was making hard cider under her sink as a hobby, and their love and an interest in doing more with it blossomed. So when they decided to leave Seattle for a better place to raise a family, Bobby remembered the area and they ended up in Fair Haven, where they have since added two children to the population. Bobby’s parents even moved upstate to join them.

The new year will bring a transition at my favorite cidery, as having day jobs and small children have kept Bobby and Amy plenty busy. They’re in the process of selling to two local couples who have more time and grand plans. Their final weekend of 2018 a few weeks ago saw many members of the community come in as the cidery served its last stock under this ownership — first the blueberry ran out, then the cassis, then standard, then oaken (only the hopped remained when I called it a night). But the inventory and the tidy building will refill in 2019, bringing the populace and their growlers back through its friendly doors.

All around town

Arius in a pirate outfitThis village has served up plenty of food, drink and adventures for us in 2018. Arius and I walked in the parade at Pirate Fest, built (sort of) a snowman during Winter Fest and checked out some music during Porchfest. The latter community-wide musical celebration is in just its second year but has already become an annual highlight. The biggest celebration of the year remains its Independence Day celebration, and I was here this year to catch its Mile-Long Parade from the porch of the cidery with a number of people who were strangers just a year or two ago but are now friends.

If you look east from the cidery or north from the cafe, your gaze would take you to Brandon’s Pub + Grille, known as O’Connor’s until fairly recently, where I’ve enjoyed food, beverages and acoustic music this year. Just west along the main drag of Route 104A is Bayside Grocery, where I’ve secured sustenance to accompany my appreciation of fine cider. Bayside shares a parking lot with Big Bo’s ice cream, where Arius will consistently ask for a chocolate/vanilla twist cone. Down the street a few blocks east sits a re-opened Guisseppe’s Sub and Pizza Shop, which has also provided necessary carbs this year.

Posing with seven salmonAlso on the east side of town, you’ll find a playground that Arius enjoyed a few times this year, and down the hill is a small park along the creek that splits the village, where a few months ago I took my kid fishing for the first time. Across that inlet in a West Bay marina is Whitecap Charters, which took Bobby, his father Bob and I on a much more serious fishing trip, where the two enormous salmon I caught were among a large seven-fish haul for the day. A stone’s throw away sits Turtle Cove Marina and Restaurant, where my brother and I plus our families took our mother for her birthday dinner this year.

My 2018 adventures also included Bobby and I checking out the cider and scene at Colloca’s Winery on the West Bay and some non-cider at Little Sodus Inn north of the playground. I also watched the Fair Haven Tree Lighting Ceremony in the town’s Central Park, which at other times hosted everything from the Winter Fest snow-building activities to a live mermaid during Pirate Fest.

Getting out and getting inArius goes fishing

I’m the product of a small town — although at nearly 2,000 people, Weedsport is almost a city compared to Fair Haven. Many of us wanted nothing more than to get out of town when we could. Not everybody did; some have never moved out of town. Others left and never looked back. Others, like me, come back to visit family but don’t necessarily harbor a heap of affection or nostalgia from a place that seemed so small.

So in a way, my continued love of Fair Haven, here at the northern end of my native Cayuga County, is strange. I guess I’ve always loved small-town living but was looking for the right small town for my affection. Housing prices are cheap (tempting), as is the cost of living in general unless you want to drop $200K or decidedly more on a palace on the West Bay.

Calendar of Fair Haven sights and sceneryAnd if Fair Haven never found that year-round tourist activity, things are decidedly on the upswing. Up until a few years ago, Bayside Grocery about the only place downtown you could expect to find open year-round. Then the Hardware Cafe and General Store — which, as its name demonstrates, has been quite a few things over the years — decided to stay open year round and succeeded. Guisseppe’s is giving it a go this year as well. Under new ownership, maybe Sterling Cidery will join them in 2019 or beyond?

We’re on the cusp of 2019, so why not be optimistic? Before leaving the cafe, I bought a copy of a calendar put together by the talented Kyle Meddaugh, who operates his photography business OnePhoto and a gallery across the street from the cafe. A new calendar for what we hope will be a brighter 2019. Thus even if I’m not in Fair Haven, views of the small town and its lakeside vistas hang on a wall for me to enjoy throughout the year.

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Being useful is more important than chasing vanity metrics

I recently had a call from a vendor who brusquely said she thought our Facebook posts could do better and that their tool could help (a dubious argument). That week happened to be, in retrospect, one of our lowest for engagement rates, in part because Facebook was seemingly squeezing everybody’s reach at the time and because I was trying new content features, but it also brought to focus something I’ve been thinking for a while:

We spend a lot of time looking at social media the wrong way.

Graph that shows a rising and falling Facebook reachSocial media isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a popularity contest. If you’re only concerned with vanity metrics (likes, reach, etc.), you’re not really concerned with your audience.

Don’t get me wrong: I like seeing one of our posts getting hundreds of likes and shares and a big reach, but there’s something I like way better:

Seeing that one of our posts has helped somebody or had a positive effect. Maybe it makes an alum smile and remember their days. Maybe a parent comments on how thrilled they are their child goes here. Maybe it convinces somebody to come to an event or donate or maybe even choose to enroll at our college.

And in at least one case, a very helpful post made people mad and convinced them not to come, but ultimately was the right thing, engagement rates be damned.

Without getting too specific, we have a popular annual student-organized event that I happily promote when I heard about it because it’s one of the most cherished offerings to the community. But then, on the afternoon before the event (!), they emailed they didn’t have their resources aligned and would have to cancel it.

I knew what I had to do wouldn’t make us popular or that beloved in the short term, but it was the right thing: I had to post ASAP that this event was canceled.

People were mad. They chewed us out. They were rightfully upset that an event their children looked forward to wasn’t going to happen and they’d have to find some alternative. I checked around and found a couple of similar events they might enjoy.

The post did get shared quite a bit to make sure families didn’t show up to a canceled thing, which would have led to temper tantrums and the like, and the comments with which it was shared were not kind. Understood. I did a follow-up post the next morning, realizing it could bring more anger, although by then people saw it as more helpful.

If somebody only cared about sentiment tracking, would they have posted it?

If somebody didn’t think it would get a bunch of likes, would they have posted it?

I’d like to think the answer to these questions is “yes” for most people in the field, but if all you chase are likes and positive sentiment, you’ll miss the bigger purpose of social media, and that is being of value to your community.

If somebody doesn’t want to post something helpful or of interest to a key (albeit niche) audience because it might not get good engagement rates and could potentially lower EdgeRank, then they are managing numbers, not a true community.

Because posting something that genuinely helps one person, or moves one person to action that will have positive results, is more valuable than 100 likes any day.

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#heweb16 shows it’s a caring community

Not only is HighEdWeb (#heweb16) probably the greatest conference for higher ed web professionals in the world but we were reminded yet again today that it’s a very caring community.

As Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code — which provides computer science and technological learning opportunities to girls of color ages 7 to 17 — gave a moving keynote on the importance of supporting technological opportunities to all, Chris D’Orso of Stony Brook cared enough to go to the Black Girls Code website and make a donation of $16 (in honor of #heweb16) to support the cause.

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And that in itself is lovely, but what happened next showed how truly beautiful the people at #heweb16 are.

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And it continued …

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(I also gave the $16, but was only one of many.)

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Until the giving spirit was everywhere in the room:

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I lost track of how many people donated, and I’m not sure how much total money we raised, but I’m completely sure of this: #heweb16 is an awesome community and I am so blessed to be a part of it.

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Goodbye Garrison Keillor: A lesson in the power of with.

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”

Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”

So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.

Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.

And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.

Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.

We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.

Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:

1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.

2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.

3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.

And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.

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